Rhino Conservation Accolades flow for courageous game rangers!
Africa's 2020 Rhino Conservation Awards remind us that everyday many endangered animals and plants are protected thanks to the blood, sweat and tears of dedicated conservationists and rangers. Photo Cred: Rhino ranger - Chris Galliers

African conservation is at a crossroads, requiring modern approaches in a new age of exploration.


South Africa (09 January 2023) – Conservation in Africa is at a crossroads. A false step risks mass extinctions and economic ruin. It’s time for hard work, clear thinking and tough choices. There’s little wilderness left, and climate change may be nearing a point where it will be too late to stave off mass extinctions. Yet, we still consume natural resources quicker than the earth can heal itself.

Time is running out, but Dr Duncan MacFadyen, co-organiser of the 2022 11th annual Oppenheimer Research Conference, believes there is hope. So too, does world-renowned Wits University paleoanthropologist Lee Berger.

Berger was, in many ways, the odd man out at this year’s conference attended mainly by conservation researchers, NGO’s and environmentalists. Berger’s business is old bones – finding them and unlocking their ancient secrets. Most of the more than 380 delegates are anchored in the here-and-now worlds of biodiversity, landscape ecology and climate change.

Drawing on his recent discoveries at the Cradle of Humankind in Gauteng, Berger sought to inspire and energise, telling how his own discipline had gone from being “devastated by his recent discoveries scepticism” to making “transformational discoveries” in recent years.

It was a message not lost on his audience, who have their work cut out in halting biodiversity loss, climate change, and conserving wildlife. At the same time, Africa urgently needs economic growth and development – a complete facelift of sorts. How to do this in a way that conserves nature rather than erodes it, was the key question arising.

Another area of concern was the way African voices on climate change and conservation tend to be drowned out by what some refer to as “scientific imperialism”.

In the first panel session, ‘Conservation: Who owns the conservation?’ outspoken Radio 702 host and Carte Blanche presenter Bongani Bingwa, pointed out that less than 1% of top climate research authors are based in Africa and that less than 1% of African media coverage was about climate change. 

Down With The Doom. Time To Crack On With Conversation.
Radio 702 host and former Carte Blanche presenter, Bongani Bingwa, (Photo: Supplied)

Binga warned that the muted voice of African researchers would lead to imposed conservation models that disregard African environmental knowledge. 

Nolwazi Mbongwa, a practising sangoma and research assistant at the South African National Biodiversity Institute, put it more bluntly: “Conservation is not a colonist concept. It always existed in Africa,” she said.

Mbongwa and Wits University professor Sally Archibald derided the phenomenon that sees cash-flush overseas researchers fly into developing countries, grab data and hurry home to analyse and publish without really involving locals, referred to as so-called “helicopter research”.

This “helicopter science” betrayed “a shocking lack of understanding of ecological processes” in Africa, said Archibald, referring to her own work as a fire ecologist.

And in Africa itself, said Mbongwa, most traditional healers had a deeper appreciation for nature than what could be learned from books, but were largely ignored when it came to decision-making in the conservation sector.

This was touched on by Minister Barbara Creecy, the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment. In her keynote address, Creecy said more research was needed into the role and value of indigenous and traditional knowledge in promoting biodiversity conservation in Africa.

She said the Oppenheimer conference could not have been more opportune.

“This audience understands more than others the crisis confronting our natural world and indeed the future of humanity as we know it. Climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution threaten the environment on which we depend and weaken our economic and social systems,” said Creecy.

Conference patron, Nicky Oppenheimer, stressed that the Southern African conservation sector was uniquely positioned to tackle unpleasant, real-world problems that were often ignored by big environmental NGOs.

“In the Western world conservation is all too often somewhat of a fiction … a Disney vision of the real world,” said Oppenheimer. “Some very unpleasant things happen in the world and in the conservation areas where we operate. You have to be able to face up to those and make that part of your research and deliberations.”

But, he added, it was also important to know that humankind could not bend nature to its will.

“After all, the real world has been out there longer than any of us … Because it has been there so long, it has been successful, and we need to learn from that,” said Oppenheimer. 

Keynote speaker, conservationist, corruption-buster, and government turnaround specialist, Mavuso Msimang, referred to predictions that a 4°C increase in global temperatures (relative to pre-industrial levels) could cause about a 12% decrease in the African continent’s overall GDP – “a decline we simply cannot afford.

“But we can stop this trend and safeguard our economy if we embrace nature-based solutions,” said Msimang.

He cited a 2020 World Economic Forum report, stating that a transition to a nature-positive economy could generate $10.1 trillion in business value every year and provide about 400 million new jobs!

“If Africa chooses to unlock the power of nature by expanding and improving the management of protected areas, it will create unparalleled business value for the continent,” said Msimang.  

The other panel session grappled with whether continuous economic growth would lead to sustainable solutions, or whether such solutions can only be found by changing the way the global economy works.

Dr Neva Makgetla a senior economist at research institute Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies, warned that there was a link between economic growth and environmental disaster.

And in South Africa – one of the most unequal societies in the world – it is going to be a tough problem to solve. 

Makgetla stressed that people in the poor communities lack the resources that give the rich resilience, and that radical change was required if a green-growth economy was to become a reality.

This, she said, required “changing every aspect of the economy, but also society in a whole variety of ways.”

“What we can’t do is say to the majority: you have to sacrifice for the good of the environment. In a democracy that doesn’t work. They also have to see the benefits. It can’t always be just the environment. That’s a way of saying: ‘No, you can’t have what other people have’.”

While such discussions gave delegates plenty to ponder, the wide range of scientific presentations got down to the nitty gritty of conservation conundrums and the fresh insights gleaned from the latest research.

Prior to the conference, Roving Reporters correspondents, Maxcine Kater and Rio Button, had opportunity to profile four key presenters, including evolutionary biologist, Professor Tim Clutton-Brock, and Professor Graham Kerley, Director of the Centre for African Conservation Ecology.

Clutton-Brock gave a fascinating account of his studies on the impact of global warming on two very different animals: deer and meerkats. In a nutshell: while deer do well, it’s misery for meerkats. Clutton-Brock hopes that the wealth of data he has collected will have predictive value, providing le the effects of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Down With The Doom. Time To Crack On With Conversation.
PART OF THE GANG:  Prof Tim Clutton-Brock and his meerkat family in the Kalahari Desert in 1995. Picture supplied.

Kerley chatted about the Protected Areas Paradox and Refugee Species concept.

He recounted how his early days research during a fellowship at the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Mammal Research Institute gave rise to his ‘refugee species’ concept.

As a young researcher he was perturbed that the European bison (Bison bonasus), which, much like domestic cows are bulk eaters of grass, were being confined to European forests. This is despite its evolutionary background, dental morphology, behaviour, and diet characteristics of a grazing species that thrives in open, grass-rich habitats.

“Closer to home, Kerley reckons that aside from big reserves such as Kruger National Park, Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Addo Elephant National Park and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, most other protected areas in South Africa – more than 1500 of them according to SANParks – are far too small – 100 hectares or less. Few are suited to promoting large-scale biodiversity and ecological restoration”, says Kerley. 

And historically, it is mountainous, barren, and rocky landscapes, where it’s hard for people to live or farm, that have been set aside for conservation, says Kerley. This has led to a piecemeal, fragmentary approach to the establishment of protected areas. This has clearly not guaranteed biodiversity protection, hence the Protected Areas Paradox.

We also chatted with University of Kwazulu-Natal Zoology Professor Rob Slotow about managing elephant populations. Slotow’s frank advice to people worried about elephant numbers is: Quit counting them!

Slotow says most reserve managers agonise over whether a particular park had too many or too few elephants. Instead, they should be looking at whether natural ecosystems in protected areas were functioning properly to support biodiversity, and sufficiently diverse and robust to bounce back from major disturbances such as storms, drought, heatwaves, and diseases.

Slotow also argues that it’s not intrinsic, natural behaviour for elephants to be aggressive toward people, but a sign of stress. If they entirely ignore you, as Slotow witnessed for the first time in 1998 in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, it’s a good sign: they are relaxed and happy.

Down With The Doom. Time To Crack On With Conversation.
An elephant calf and cow relaxing at the Olifantsrus water hole in Etosha, Namibia. (Photo: Rob Slotow).

Roving Reporters also gained insight from Dr Irene Amoke, executive director of Kenya Wildlife Trust, into how technology revolutionises conservation in ways that enable young people to contribute tangibly. 

She talked about the advancement of camera trap technology which uses sensors monitor animal movement right down to specific individuals. Intelligent, hi-tech solutions are now required to sift through vast amounts footage to keep tabs on movement and behaviour of specific species like more than 500 lions in the Masai Mara reserve, in southwestern Kenya. This, says Amoke, could ultimately help reserve managers predict and mitigate against human-wildlife conflicts.

In this published Zoom chat interview with Roving Reporters after the conference, MacFayden said while there was a lot of doom and gloom about conservation in Africa, the participating researchers had demonstrated that there was a lot that can be done to build wildlife economies into a much-needed cornerstone of prosperity in Africa.

He heaped praise on young, emerging African scientists who featured prominently at the conference, helping shape debates.

Among them were Zimbabwean ornithologist and University of Cape Town PhD candidate, Merlyn Nkomo. She reminded delegates that it was not that long ago that national parks were fortresses put up to “protect” nature from the black communities that had lived in harmony with it for centuries.

Nkomo has, since 2020, been very vocal about what she terms the Achilles Heel of Conservation – the fact that people of colour are not sufficiently recognised in the conservation of nature and wildlife.

MacFayden said Nkomo’s presentation also brought into sharp focus the challenges she had personally faced as a black woman in the conservation sector.

This, said MacFadyen, clearly demonstrated the need to turn the page on that past and bring fresh voices into the conservation sector – in much the same way that Berger had recently brought in young African fossil finders into “the greatest age of exploration”.

A recent Tipping Points webinar, also hosted by Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation, provided into what lies in store, particularly on the hi-tech virtual reality front. 

Imagine, for example, a 12-year-old girl immersed in a coral reef, taking in all the sights of shoals of exotic and vibrant fish. Then suddenly this underwater paradise is polluted with plastic, oil sludge and the colourful corals bleached. Soon, the vibrant shoals of fish are but a distant memory. A paradigm shift takes place, creating awareness of the need to protect and conserve natural spaces.

And with 2666 satellites orbiting earth – nearly a third of these used for earth observations – there is tremendous scope to measure patterns of biodiversity at scale, quantifying habitat loss and better understanding which ecosystems are threatened, and what could be done to save them. – www.rovingreporters.co.za

Sources: Fred Kockott, Maxcine Kater and Rio Button for Roving Reporters
Roving Reporters coverage of the Oppenheimer Research Conference was commissioned by Jive Media Africa which helps young environmental scientists produce multi-media content.
Fred Kockott is the director of Roving Reporters. Maxcine Kater is a marine biologist interning at the Department of Forestry Fisheries and the Environment. Rio Button is a conservation biologist and Western Cape ambassador for WESSA’s Young Reporters for the Environment. They are both participants in Roving Reporters Biodiversity and Coastal Resilience Reporting Project – an investigative journalism training initiative established with the support of the Henry Nxumalo Foundation.
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